We Love Bury St Edmunds!


On 6 November 1850, the Bury and Norwich Post announced that Edward John Hillier had been appointed Second Master at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

Like its erudite but somewhat ineffectual headmaster, Dr John William Donaldson, Edward was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and a Hebrew scholar, as well as being a mathematician, and this may explain why he obtained the post at the relatively young age of twenty-six.

Two years later, his elder brother, Charles Batten Hillier, arrived from China, together with his wife, Eliza (daughter of the celebrated LMS missionary, Walter Henry Medhurst), and their three sons, Willie, Walter and Harry, who were aged between three and six months.

First Opium War

Less scholarly than Edward, Charles had begun his career in the Merchant Navy but, having been engaged in transporting troops from India to China during the First Opium War, he had stayed on, taught himself Chinese and been appointed as Hong Kong’s Chief Magistrate in 1847.

The Scholar and The Mandarins

Charles Batten Hillier, taken during the time that he visited his brother in Bury St Edmunds in 1852.

The two brothers were able to meet for the first time in twelve years, but after two months Charles had to return to China, leaving Eliza and the three boys in Edward’s care. He was living with his three unmarried sisters, Mary, Laetitia and Fanny, in a large house at 62 Westgate Street (possibly belonging to the school).

Eliza was pregnant – one of the reasons for coming to England had been to have the baby in safer conditions – and, in January 1853, she was safely delivered of a daughter, who was christened Eleanor Maud (but always known as Maudie). Attended by the local doctor, Dr Image, all went well and, having weaned the baby, she was able to begin enjoying herself.

The Scholar and The Mandarins

Eliza Hillier, taken during the time she was staying with Edward Hillier in Bury St Edmunds

Fortunately, a cache of letters from Eliza to her younger sister, Martha, who was living in Batavia (modern day Jakarta), have survived and provide a vivid picture of her life in this ‘cheerful’ and ‘fine clean old town’, as she called it.

Exactly like a very bilious canary

Although Edward was strictly low church – novels were frowned upon and only the Bible could be read on Sundays- , he had clearly taken a shine to Eliza. She and his sister, Mary, were both very musical and played the piano and took singing lessons, first from a Mr Beckman and then from a Monsieur Munn, who was, Eliza said, ‘exactly like a very bilious canary’.

The two elder boys were very lively and were allowed out into the town on their own. As Eliza told Martha, ‘they are great friends with the grocer and chemist, both of whom supply them liberally with dates and lozenges…. people constantly stop them in the street and ask how the “Little Mandarins” are …’ And so, images of life in Far Cathay were conjured up in this quiet country town.

The Scholar and The Mandarins

62 Westgate Street

‘Grave Uncle Edward’ seems to have been remarkably tolerant of this noisy household and happily took the family for long walks on Saturday afternoons. Later, he accompanied his sister, Mary, and Eliza to Paris and, with trains running from Bury to London, Eliza was able to travel extensively, both on her own and taking the children to the sea-side resorts of Yarmouth and Cromer.

Eventually, the time came for her and Maudie to return to China and leave the three boys to be looked after by Edward’s  sister, Sarah, ‘Auntie Pieritz’, who was married to a clergyman with a parish in Cambridge. Bidding Edward a sad farewell, she set sail from Southampton in February 1855.

The Scholar and The Mandarins

Revd Edward Hillier, Vicar of Cardington, taken in the 1880s when he was in his sixties

Resident Vicar

Unfortunately, the school was not prospering and Donaldson was replaced in 1855. The family records are silent as to how successful a teacher Edward was but, later, he would tutor three of his nephews for service in China and be remembered as a conscientious if strict teacher. Ordained in 1852, he had been waiting to succeed to a parish and, in 1856, Trinity College appointed him to the living of Cardington in Bedfordshire and there he would remain as its resident Vicar until his death some fifty years later.

His brother, Charles, fared less well. Appointed Britain’s first Consul to Siam, he died in October 1856 only months after taking up the appointment in Bangkok. Eliza arrived back in early January the following year, to break the news. Aged just twenty-eight and pregnant with her fifth child, she was invited to stay at Cardington Vicarage. Grave Uncle Edward found himself, once again, with a household of Mandarins.

Andrew Hillier’s Mediating Empire: An English Family in China: 1817-1927 is due to be published by Renaissance Books this spring.  An edited version of Eliza Hillier’s letters will be published by Hong Kong City University Press towards the end of the year. For more about the Hillier family, go to https://www.hpcbristol.net/collections/hillier Andrew would be pleased to hear from anyone with any further information about Edward Hillier or the school at this time – hillier@11kbw.com